Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Elusiveness of Objectivity.

I have been quite a happy person recently.  Recently following last week's debate between William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss, another debate presented itself earlier this evening.  This one pitted Sam Harris, atheist philosopher and neuroscientist, against Craig (a very busy man).  Now, I must preface this commentary by saying that I'm a fan of both philosophers that participated in this debate.  That being said, however, I must admit that William Lane Craig was the clear winner.

I certainly do not think that this victory owed itself to theological superiority.  Rather, William Lane Craig not only presented his case clearly and systematically, he also was able to make himself sound like he was standing on firmer ground.  Harris simply failed to point out Craig's numerous logical fallacies and failed to clarify his position in the structured and audience-friendly manner which Craig's years of debating allowed him to do quite convincingly.  Sadly, yes- this debate fell victim to miscommunication as much as Craig's previous skirmish.

Harris really didn't say much that we have not heard before- the desire to help others is innate in the vast majority of the species, morality seems clear to us as an almost a priori function.  While I didn't really take issue with anything Harris said, I did take issue with very much that he did not say- a thorough list of Craig's errors, for instance; however, I'd be glad to help him out on the subject, and I shall waste no more time in doing so.

The debate aimed to address the question of morality, and whether a secular foundation or a theological foundation provided a better foundation for it- and whether this foundation could be objective.  Craig tirelessly repeated the opinion that theology provides a solid, objective foundation for morality.  However, this  opinion was only really supported by two facts (here we assume for the sake of argument that Christianity is true): that morality was independent of us and therefore objective, and that good was inseparable from God, as its very definition is that which is of God, or rather, God's will.  God's will is defined as goodness; the quality is inherent in God's will as part of His nature.  Well, I will start with the first assertion- the assertion of objectivity.  This wish for morality to be an objective, immutable law is not only derogatory to humanity, I believe, but it is also futile.  I ask you now to simply contemplate the thought process that takes place when we attribute morality to God: we cannot bear the concept of morality being nothing but an arbitrary concept which we create and shape; being nothing but the collective opinion of humanity.  We want to know that rape is truly evil, not simply that we consider it evil.  Such an act appears to hold an intrinsically evil nature.  So, there must be a lawgiver who makes these laws.  Think about that for a minute- we cannot bear the idea of morality being relative, and so we turn to God to create these laws (and apparently to enforce them as well).  The man who says that we are somehow creating an objective source of morality here is simply blinding himself to the obvious.  God is a sentient being; he chooses these laws.  They do not exist independent of him.  By definition, morality remains relative in this fashion.  All that we accomplish by "passing the buck" here is that morality continues to be nothing but an opinion, but now the opinion is being given by a being infinitely more powerful than us, so that resistance to these laws is ultimately futile- justice will be done, and God shall see to it.  Ironically, this smacks of the relativist ethics of social Darwinism that theists so often express their fear of: "But in your worldview, morality is nothing but the opinion of the strongest!  Might makes right!"  I find it rather amusing that this is exactly what they have done with their idea of God; once again He is let off the hook simply because He is God and that grants Him an inexplicable free pass to do whatever he pleases without question.  Rather than thinking critically, making observations, and creating as good a concept of morality as we are able, we simply obey orders from a more powerful Being because we are content with taking His word for it that everything he commands is ethically acceptable by definition.  "Should" and "should not" are entirely metaphysical concepts; they simply do not exist outside our minds.  Objective morality is inherently impossible.

As to Craig's second point, I really do not know how he overlooked such a simple fallacy.  He attempted to say that God provides us with an acceptable objective morality because good was, by definition, what God commands.  Now, I do not know why Harris did not press this point further- it was certainly the error that stood out the most to me.  Craig is, in this instance, simply assuming his conclusion as a premise- the aim of this debate was to discuss whether we should define "good" as "what God commands" or not.  Craig claims here that we must define "good" it this way, because that's the definition of "good"!  Now, Harris did make a small comment on this problem that Craig gave an unsatisfactory reply to.  Craig claimed that he was not simply assuming that morality was based on God's will; rather, that God's will itself created certain moral laws that exist whether we define them as such or not.  However, this gets us nowhere.  Even if we assume Craig's claim that God's laws exist, he has not explained why we should consider them "moral" by our standards and why we should obey them.  Simply by existing as sentient beings, we have responsibility thrust upon us to accept standards, to make statements- to believe this or not believe that.  We cannot simply throw up our hands and say that we should not do this because it is inherently evil.  As I stated before, "should" and "should not" are entirely conceptual and cannot exist outside of our minds.  Immutable laws may exist, but it still ultimately becomes our own decision as to whether these laws accurately represent our ideas of "should" and "should not".  Craig makes the mistake of assuming that beliefs and morality can be imposed- it is impossible. One can be forced to act a certain way, or even forced to say he believes that he should act a certain way, but these are ultimately a matter of personal decision- otherwise one is simply suspending what beliefs they have truly formed.

The ultimate goal of this debate, I think, would be to choose a definition of morality that seems the most rational to us.  We must decide whether we want to make an informed decision, or accept an arbitrary code that has no apparent grounding in any sort of logic.  The sooner we can make this decision to turn away from unquestioning obedience to a being who enforces his laws with threats of torture, the sooner we may be able to truly study the question of morality, and improve it as best we can.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A false dichotomy.

As some of you may know, William Lane Craig engaged in a spirited debate with Lawrence Krauss yesterday evening.  I very much enjoyed the debate; not only for the intelligence of its participants but also because it accomplished what I always hope for debates to accomplish- it made me think.  One issue rose most prominently to my attention during their debate.  There seemed to be a bit of a miscommunication between them; Krauss, of course, is a physicist, while Craig is a philosopher.  These are slightly different ways of looking at the world, and they both turn their attention to different things.  Both scientists and philosophers, however, both seek the same thing: truth.  These differences, however, are getting in the way of the peaceful coexistence of these two groups- there seems to be quite some enmity between the two.  We've all heard a philosopher complaining about how uneducated scientists are about the simplest logic or theology, and we all hear scientists dismissing philosophy as a dead science that only helped us when science had not surpassed its ability to learn about the universe we live in.  Even Stephen Hawking, possibly the greatest scientist in the world, briskly announced the death of philosophy in his latest book, The Grand Design.  Now, I must disagree.  I believe that philosophy is alive and well; there are, however, differences that must be addressed and understood if science and philosophy are to coexist (which would be much more beneficial to us all).

Science is observational.  It is based on empirical data; on falsifiability.  It is not concerned with the human side of things.  It simply gathers data, creates a hypothesis to explain the data, and tests it.  If our attempts to falsify the hypothesis fail, and we can accurately make predictions based on our hypothesis, then it becomes a tested theory.  A theory is a tested explanation of the world around us.  Science presupposes logic and the reliability of human cognition and deals with the physical- which is it getting quite good at.  Essentially, science is concerned with the world in itself- the world independent of human consciousness and perception, untainted by our languages and definitions and emotions.

Philosophy, however, deals with a completely different realm.  Philosophy focuses completely on the human side- our cognition, our knowledge a priori, our own powers of inductive and deductive reasoning.  It focuses on the powers of our perception, our ability to make sense of the world around us, and what we make of the world with what we have.  A rough generalization is to say that science deals with the physical and that philosophy deals with the conceptual.  For instance, science can tell us that morality has evolved in us as instincts which improve the probability of survival (or at least did so for our ancestors), but it cannot tell us whether we should ignore these instincts or adhere to them.  Such matters are a matter of choice, which there is no objectively right or wrong path to take.  It is simply up to us as humans to make certain decisions for ourselves.

While the aforementioned differences are admittedly only a rough summary, the basic point is made- there are two different methods used, and two different kinds of truth that are being sought after.  Philosophy and science complement each other; they do not conflict.